Review: The Military Revolution.
Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800, by Geoffrey
Parker (Cambridge University Press, 1988).
Geoffrey Parker's The
Military Revolution falls within a genre of military history which seeks to
explain the European success in establishing colonial empires over much of the
world beginning in the 16th century.
Unlike two previous attempts on this subject, William McNeill's The Pursuit of Power and Michael
Howard's War in European History,
Parker takes a much more focused approach.
Rather than seeking to explain the reasons for European expansion (as
McNeill did), and without going into the interaction between war and society
(as Howard did), Parker chooses to concentrate on one question: "Just how
did the West, initially so small and so deficient in most natural resources,
become able to compensate for what it lacked through superior military and
naval power?" He also
limits his time frame to examining "the principle means by which the West
acquired that first 35 per cent [of the world's land surface] between 1500 and
Parker, currently a professor of history at University
of Illinois, was educated in Britain, and has written extensively on 16th and
17th century European warfare. He takes
his concept of the "military revolution" directly from his mentor,
Michael Roberts, which encompasses four critical changes in the art of war:
tactics, army size, strategy and impact.
Parker believes that these changes gave Europeans the military
superiority which allowed them to defeat and conquer native peoples and states
from the Americas to Indonesia.
Parker's argument proceeds on two levels. His first three chapters are mostly
concerned with showing that this military revolution in fact took place. He examines the development and spread of
the trace italienne, which
"created a strategic problem to which there was no easy solution."
heavily defended fortress or town, sheltering perhaps 10,000 men and supported
by lesser strongholds in the vicinity was far too dangerous to be left in the
wake of an advancing army: it had to be taken, whatever the cost. And yet there was no short-cut to capture,
however powerful the besieging army might be.
This simple paradox rendered battles more or less irrelevant in all
areas where the new fortifications were built . . .
He also looks at the changes in field tactics which
led to armies composed of thin lines of musketeers firing in volleys, supported
by mobile field artillery. These two
changes led in turn to a dramatic increase in the size of armies. In the second chapter, Parker then examines
the means by which these huge new armies were raised, financed and supplied.
Parker turns to naval warfare in his third chapter,
and here he begins to add to Roberts's basic concept of the military
revolution. Parker sees a similiar
revolution taking place at sea, with the advent of naval artillery bringing
about a revolution in ship design and naval tactics. By a process of fits and starts, the galley was eventually
replaced by the frigate armed with ship-killing artillery, and line-ahead
formations by ships firing multiple broadsides became the standard tactics. Parker's argument here has some significant
holes. He shows that the Portuguese
were using line-ahead tactics as early as 1500, and makes a strong case that
the Spanish Armada was unable to use these tactics in 1588 because their
two-wheeled gun carriages did not allow the guns to be easily reloaded during
battle, but he never explains the discrepancy between these two
statements. Another weak spot is Parker's
assertion that the "critical element" in the creation of the first
"high-seas fleet capable of operating at long-range, on a permanent basis,
as an ocean-going force" by the English was the "change in ship
design, for only frigates could operate effectively for long periods at long
range." Nowhere does
he adequately explain this assertion, which the establishment of empires by fleets
of Portuguese and Spanish galleons would seem to belie.
Parker finishes up with an examination of the results
of the military revolution applied overseas.
He does an excellent job, for the most part, in showing how the new
military techniques gave the Europeans victory, often against incredible odds,
and also how the military revolution failed to make an impact on the states of
East Asia. The European techniques of
fortification, for example, were usually proof against even the most determined
sieges, but Chinese and Japanese fortifications were as strong or even stronger. Also, many of the native states failed to adapt
to Western military techniques due to incompatible cultural traditions -- for
instance, in war which had the capture of slaves as its object, firearms were
useless. Here again, Parker seems to
gloss over things which he cannot explain.
His non-explanation of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs and Incas is
especially notable: "Further south, the European colonists triumphed more
The greatest strength of The Military Revolution is Parker's conscious attempt to reduce the
'Eurocentric' view of world history. He
reminds us that the world was not standing still until the Europeans arrived,
and that each area of the world had its own distinctive history and traditions
which helped determine the success of failure of European conquest. Although on a few points Parker seems to be
standing on thin air, overall the book is just the opposite: well-supported and
well-documented. The over 60 pages of
notes (to a 154 page book) are a mine of bibliographic sources, which are
helpfully indexed following the notes.
A final note of praise must go to Parker's outstanding use of illustrations. Rather than just being thrown in as an
afterthought, Parker incorporates them into his text to help 'illustrate'
various points. The Military Revolution is a coherent, tightly focused explanation
of the military means which led to the "rise of the West," and is
equally valuable to the student or the scholar.